Cornhill is in England - just!
It is the first and last village and is ideally positioned for exploring the beautiful Northumberland countryside It is now a peaceful spot, situated on the banks of the River Tweed, surrounded by rolling fields and bordered by the Cheviot Hills to the south.
However, the surrounding countryside reflects the turbulence of times past, with historic castles at Norham, Ford and Etal, and the haunting Battlefield of Flodden, where in 1513 the invading Scots fought a bloody battle against the defending English.
Documented walks and cycle routes are available from the Village Shop which is situated in the heart of the village, as well as a well-stocked shop and cafe, this family-run business supplies delicious take-away snacks.
The ancient Collingwood Arms Hotel is an excellent place to stay while you explore the surrounding countryside.
For details of other local amenities, please navigate through our pages.
Cornhill: A Brief History
From around AD650 to 970, the kingdom of Northumbria stretched from the Humber to the Forth, with Cornhill situated in the northern part, Bernicia. From 970, however, Scottish power was gradually extended southwards. Northumbria was defeated in a battle at nearby Carham in 1018, since when the frontier has been fixed along the Tweed.
Cornhill was part of the extensive estates granted to the monastery of Lindisfarne in the 7th-8th centuries. Known as Islandshire and Norhamshire, they were held after AD1000 by the bishops of Durham, and the area formed a detached part of County Durham until 1844. The bishops retained quasi-regal powers of administration and taxation until the mid-16th century. Cornhill lay at the north-western extremity of North Durham, part of Norhamshire.
Cornhill was a chapelry of Norham until 1730. It became a civil parish in 1866, and covers some 4,944 acres, bounded by the Tweed (N), the Till (E), Dedhoe Burn (W) and Ford parish (S). There are three townships: Cornhill 1,691 acres; Tillmouth 1,274 acres and Heaton 1,979 acres. The local landscape of gently undulating hills reflects the underlying geology of sands, clays and gravels, laid down in the last Ice Age over ancient rocks. The parish ranges between 20m (66ft) and 90m (295ft) above sea level.
The name Cornhill has nothing to do with either corn or hills. It derives from Old English halh, ‘a nook, corner of land’; referring to the great bend on the Tweed, and cran/cron, meaning ‘crane or heron’ (compare Lennel ‘corner of land near a pool [in the Tweed]. Herons are still common locally. In medieval times, the name was often spelled Cornell pronounced Corn’ll, the present spoken version reflects today’s spelling and Scots’ influence. The name Tillmouth is self-explanatory, while Heaton is ‘the high farm or village’.
Fertile soils, ample water supply and the ready supply of salmon and other fish made the area attractive to prehistoric nomadic hunter-gatherers. They have left no obvious traces, and neither did the first farmers around 3-4,000BC. The Bronze and Iron Ages (c.2,500BC-43AD) have left scattered traces of settlement, including burials. There was some kind of fortification, probably Iron Age, north of Cornhill village, and possibly another at Harperidge.
There is no evidence of Roman occupation. The Iron-Age farming communities continued, but now able to serve wider markets and acquire goods through trade. The Forth-Cheviot area remained under the control of British rulers, who were replaced by the Anglian Bernician dynasty from the sixth century. Gradually, the language changed from early Welsh to Old English. From 630, Christianity spread through the area, driven by the ruling elite. Cornhill would have been served at first by itinerant priests, based at the minster church of Norham.
There is little local archaeological evidence for the period AD400-1100. Settlement probably continued to consist of scattered farms and hamlets as it had done for centuries. People in Cornhill may have been touched by the Viking raids, which led to the removal of St Cuthbert’s remains from Lindisfarne to Norham around 870, and thence to Chester-le-Street in 883, but the imperatives of getting a living from the land and rivers will have changed little.
One event which must have had an impact on Cornhill is the Battle of Carham (probably 1018), where English forces led by the earl of Northumbria were defeated by Malcolm II, king of Scots and Owain the Bald, king of Strathclyde. Since then the Border in this area has been fixed on the Tweed.
The Norman Conquest of 1066 probably had little immediate effect, although Scottish rulers regularly tried to wrest control of Northumbria. Cornhill remained firmly under the control of the church of Durham. The reorganisation of settlement led to the present form of Cornhill village, with two rows of houses fronting Main Street and the church on a natural hillock between them, probably in the 12th century. In 1183, Cornhill was worth £12 in rents or renders to Durham. The village was surrounded by thee large open fields (Low Field, East Field and South Field), divided into strips and farmed communally. Similar gathering of the local population into villages also occurred at Tillmouth and Heaton. By c.1300 Cornhill had perhaps 40-50 houses and 200-250 people. There followed dramatic population decline caused by nationwide famine and disease, made worse locally by the Scottish wars which began in the 1290s
The provision of chapel, dedicated to St. Helen, may have been part of the creation of the planned village. Its curate was provided with a house and supported by a modest glebe holding. Durham reserved a plot for a grange (outlying farm) or stackyard. Stone foundations from 13th-15th centuries excavated in 2006 may represent this building. The church was rebuilt in 1751 and again in 1842, although the walls show clear evidence of reused medieval stonework.
Three centuries of sporadic warfare and raiding between England and Scotland inevitably involved Cornhill, although it is difficult to separate its impact from those of famine and plague, which may have reduced the population by 40-60%. Sales of corn declined by 80% 1308-29, but recovered to half the previous level by 1338. At the least, crops and livestock will have been taken or destroyed, and local people killed, taken prisoner or forced to flee. Subsequent periods of warfare around 1385, in the 1420s, 1513 and 1544, and on-going raiding meant that recovery was slow, although the fertility of the land will have ensured continuity of occupation.
The so-called Cornhill “Castle” by the Tweed overlooked Lennel, the parent settlement of Coldstream. No trace remains apart from a significant ditch. In reality it was probably little more than a fortified tower of the 12-13th century, covering an area of only 0.25 acres. It disappears from the record after the 1540s, when its garrison was involved in cross-border raids as part of the so-called “Rough Wooing”, an attempt to force a marriage between the infant Mary Queen of Scots and the English prince Edward. Another tower, probably of the 15th century, now forms part of Cornhill House, adjoining the former road to the ford across the Tweed. Tillmouth had a tower by the confluence of the Tweed and Till, destroyed by the Scots in 1513 and never repaired. There are scanty remains of Heaton Castle on a bluff overlooking the Till.
The principal landowners in 14th-century Cornhill were the Denum and Grey families came to the fore. The former were replaced by Herons of Ford, the latter by the Swinhoes. Durham lost its secular powers in 1559. In 1670 the two owners of Cornhill were John Forster and William Armorer, neither resident. After 1700 their holdings passed to the Collingwood and Blake families, respectively. In 1852, H.J. Collingwood of Lilburn was the sole proprietor. The Blakes gradually took possession of the whole of Tillmouth, while Heaton passed from the medieval Heaton family to the Greys, and thence to the Earls of Tankerville.
A Border muster of 1579 records 22 tenants at Cornhill, and 11 each at Tillmouth and Heaton, similar proportions to those found in the 19th century. In 1584, the total number of armed men was 65, which probably includes some labourers. In 1636, parts of Tillmouth and Cornhill had around 44 houses, indicating a population of up to 200, with 1,600 acres of land, two-thirds of it arable. Melkington was a separate hamlet. By 1673 the population had grown to around 270-300.
Estimates of population based on the parish registers show steady growth to about 340 in 1710-30 and 400 in 1750-70. Growth then accelerated notably, to 500 in 1780 and 650 in 1790. The first Census of 1801 gives a total of 668, representing a 100% increase during the 18th century. Before 1750 growth seems to have been by natural increase, but after that there was substantial inward migration. The medieval open fields were enclosed: Tillmouth and Heaton by their single owners, Cornhill by agreement between the Collingwood and Blake families in 1751. This paved the way for the introduction more efficient farming, of both crops and livestock. In a pre-mechanised era this meant increased demand for labour. The medieval villages of Tillmouth and Heaton were replaced by new outlying farms, with steadings for labourers, and several such farms were also built in and around Cornhill itself. Labour was hired annually. The labourers or hinds were provided with accommodation, and obliged to provide a female worker, or bondager, to work on the land. The latter might be a wife or daughter, but could be unrelated and lodged with the family. This system persisted into the 20th century, as mechanisation did not replace manual labour and horse power until after 1918.
Although never a formal market centre, Cornhill developed as a livestock market in the late-19th century. In 1879, for example, an annual fair was held on 6th December, while a lamb and wool fair had been “recently established” during the first week of July.
Transport also improved after 1750. Hitherto, the Tweed had been crossed by several fords, the main one west of Cornhill House. There was a ferry by 1751 just west of the later bridge. The road from Morpeth was improved by 1763 as a turnpike road subject to tolls. A new road was built north of Cornhill village to the bridge at Coldstream designed by John Smeaton and built 1762-7. A fine 15-16th century stone bridge survives at Twizel on the Berwick road, which was also turnpike in the 18th century.
The 18th century pattern of a single village with several smaller settlement clusters persists, although large numbers of 18th/19th century dwellings have disappeared with the dramatic fall in population since 1851. Many of the survivors have been combined to form larger dwellings. A ribbon of settlement grew up along the Berwick road from c.1800, known as New Harperridge (NW side) and Donaldson’s Lodge (SE side). At its peak, this housed about 200 people, but has since shrunk to less than 50.
The total number of people in Cornhill parish grew to almost 1,000 in 1851, but has since shrunk by two-thirds.
The sharp contraction 1821-31 reflects an agricultural depression. Growth soon resumed, the all-time peak of 1851 was three times the level of 1710. This was a time of agricultural prosperity, especially in corn-growing. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, which had prevented significant imports of grain, and the rapid rise in meat imports from the Americas and Australia led to long-term decline. A deep agricultural depression lasted from the 1870s until the First World War. By 1881, population had fallen to the 1801 level. The decline then slowed, but had reached the 17th century level by 1981. The number of houses has declined far less slowly, however, and the density of occupation now less than half 19th century level. Since 1981 there has been a slight gain as Cornhill village attracted new housing. Small local authority estates were built at Cornhill and Donaldson’s Lodge in the 1960s and 1970s.
An event of major significance was the opening of the railway from Tweedmouth to Kelso in 1849, soon extended to St. Boswells. Cornhill and Tillmouth had been served by the mail coach between Berwick and Kelso once a day in each direction, and by carriers’ waggons which conveyed both goods and passengers. The train offered unprecedented opportunities for travel, by those who could afford the fares and the time, and for the transport of agricultural produce to new markets and for the import of coal and fertilisers. Equally, the railway will have facilitated the exodus of local people in search of employment as the demand for farm labour contracted sharply.
Cornhill station was renamed Coldstream in 1873. A livestock market developed next to the station, where the octagonal auction mart building was added in 1881 (unfortunately demolished in 2009/10). A proposal of the 1860s for a railway from Rothbury to Coldstream Bridge was stillborn. Instead, a line was built from Cornhill to Alnwick, opened in 1887. It was never a commercial success, however. The passenger service ended in 1930; those on the Tweedmouth line lasted until 1964. Both lines closed for freight in 1965. The station has been demolished, but the seven cottages provided for railway workers in the 1880s/1890s survive.
In 1851 there were 193 households in Cornhill, with an average size of five. 376 people were employed, 63% of them in agriculture, mostly labourers. There was a blacksmith in each of the main settlements, as well as a scattering of shoemakers, dressmakers and tailors, in what was still a highly self-sufficient community, with several shops. Ten “muggers” (earthenware hawkers) lived at Donaldson’s Lodge. Cornhill and Tillmouth had groups of fishermen. Cornhill had no fewer than 319 children under the age of 14 in 1851, about one-third of the total, equivalent to the total current population.
In 1901, after half a century of decline, 273 local people were employed. Agriculture still dominated, accounting for 56% of workers, followed by domestic service with 15%. Manufacturing had declined, but transport had increased to 9%, virtually all on the railway. Other activities, such as building and retailing, had declined in line with the overall population. Harperidge/Donaldson’s Lodge still retained the characteristics of a village, with a grocer, schoolmaster, vegetable dealer and fruiterer, whereas Heaton had long since lost these attributes, having two blacksmiths along with 64 agricultural workers and servants. The number of children had declined to 191, still ample to maintain two parish schools.
Contrary to the general picture of decline, however, the railway had gone from strength to strength, with successive enlargements of the goods yard at Cornhill requiring more porters, clerks and signalmen. Despite the protracted depression in agriculture after 1870, the auction mart also prospered. Both served a wider hinterland than Cornhill alone, with an estimated population of 3,250 in 1911. Despite this, only about sixty tickets a day were issued; most local people having little time or money to spare on travel. The principal outwards goods traffic was barley, potatoes and oats, averaging about two wagonloads a day. Livestock was a major traffic, however, with 1,090 wagons forwarded in 1913.
Cornhill since 1900
The local population continued to decline, falling by 50% between 1901 and 1971, stabilising thereafter at around 320. Apart for short-lived surges of activity like the presence of members of the Women’s Land Army (Land Girls) housed in huts off the Wooler Road in World War II, and the replacement of often substandard farm cottages with local authority housing after 1955, little physical change is apparent. Since the 1970s around 35 new houses have been built.
During the 20th century, the population aged appreciably, with a consequent substantial decline in the number of children and young adults. This led first to the closure of Tillmouth school and, in 2012 CHECK Cornhill school. Between 1901 and 2000, there was an 80% decline in the number of school-age children. About 35% of the population is now aged 65 or older.
Mechanisation caused a steep decline in agricultural employment since the late-19th century. The closure of the railways in the 1960s further reduced local employment, as did the closure of Rutherford’s agricultural machinery works. Local farms, the thriving village shop, local hotels and an agricultural plant depot provide much-needed local employment.
© Dr. Keith Bailey - author